Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Mind your manners

Renewing Faith in Our Social Graces
By Christopher Alexander Gellert for love, -j. 

Once upon a time, I needed a place to crash on a visit to New York. A friend said I could sleep on his couch a couple nights while I took care of some visa business and caught up with the city. When I returned home I sent him a thank-you note. He told me it was the best mail he’d received since Time Warner sent him a new cable offer. 

Courtesy should not be a fairy tale. We owe respect and consideration to those around us. We so often forget.

It’s one thing of course to eye the drugstore clerk skeptically as he bobbles his head at the register and asks, “How are you doing?” as he scans the bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol you picked up in aisle four, and quite another to greet someone kindly, to show attention and concern in a hello.

I believe we are often so caught in the expectation of what the French call politesse — the demand that you follow certain social conventions regardless of any faith in them, or any real regard for those around you (for example: asking someone how they are when you have no wish to know; holding the door for someone so far behind you that they have the rush to the door to thank you for making them hurry; saying yes to plans you don’t really have time for so as not to offend and then canceling at the last minute for foreseeable reasons). True courtesy demands no knowledge of rules of etiquette. It expects something far greater — the ability to empathize with and appreciate others’ needs.

When I sent my friend the letter I wanted to express my thanks for our time together, and to convey my appreciation for the trouble he went to put me up— especially as his was the kind of New York apartment where you can’t walk more than four feet in any direction without bumping into a wall. When I arrived, I brought a bottle of wine for us to share for much the same reason, but also because I knew I’d want some and he wasn’t likely to have any in the house. This might appear a selfish act, but it’s as important to anticipate our needs, as to respond to others’. By doing so, we demonstrate a regard for others, but also relieve them of an obligation to attend to us — we allow for ease and grace in company.

Allow me to illustrate. During the dead of winter a friend tromped through the snow to visit me, and upon her arrival, shaking the snow from her boots she set down a brown bag. After she had unlaced her boots she removed two pink slippers and settled into tea and nibbling, warm and happy. She knew that if she didn’t remove her boots, she would track the horror of January in with her. So, rather than melting, she foresaw her cold toes and planned accordingly, and I didn’t have to go about searching for moccasins in her size.

When we consider others, we must not only recognize their needs, but where we are: the cultural context. In many small towns it’s considered polite to smile at strangers. In New York, you try grinning at someone and they’re likely to question your sanity or remark on the view from their bedroom. Timing is important, too. Remember my friend and the weather.  

And sometimes we can become so lost in our own expectations of what people are about that we stop listening. After enough waiters and waitresses telling me their name, and inquiring how I was this evening as though we were on a blind date and about to join me for dinner instead of serving it, I resolutely answer, “Fine, thank you.” Last week, a tradesman who had come to our home asked me how I was and I responded with my habitual rebuttal to vapid disinterested chatter. He asked me again, and I realized that to feel welcome in my home, he needed to exchange some small words, to feel that we were both occupying the same space and time, and to be acknowledged as someone who also had to deal with bad roads and the wear of winter. So we talked about the weather and he fixed the toilet, and he didn’t feel so much like an interloper.  

Reader, you will find guides to proper etiquette that will instruct you on which order to lay forks and knives, and whom to serve first. The grace of true courtesy lies not here, but in kindness. 

Illustration via Mister Crew.